Thursday, December 26, 2013

To assess academic dishonesty or not?

In the Summer 2013 issue of New Directions for Student Affairs (Selected contemporary assessment issues), well known student affairs leader and scholar, Dr. Greg Blimling reflects upon assessment in student affairs and notes an early interest of his to assess academic dishonesty.  He concludes that quantifying the amount of academic dishonesty on campus is not worth the political and PR related consequences.
He writes, "The politics of assessment have taught me that assessment works best when student affairs is part of an institutional effort and not apart from it, and that it is not worth the political price of having some information" (p.13).
I was initiated into the world of student affairs under Dr. Blimling at Appalachian State University, so I naturally look up to him.  Most of what Blimling says in his chapter resonates with me.

  • Most of us welcome assessment when it yields data we can actually use
  • We're overburdened with administrative and bureaucratic tasks and are reluctant to take on assessment work that doesn't truly benefit us
  • Assessment is not about collecting data, but rather about collecting actionable data that can be used to effect measurable improvements
  • Assessment works better when we're working with colleagues in academic programs and institutional assessment
Not assessing academic dishonesty really bothers me, though.  It undermines the core of our mission - student learning.   The willful blindness here is akin to a medical professional not diagnosing symptoms out of fear of bad news or the inability to treat.  I can't imagine any legitimate medical professional doing this.  Why do we?
The perception of threat and fear impact our ability to reason, and clearly the threat of losing one's job and its impact on one's career and/or family is a serious threat.  We often over-estimate that kind of threat though, because its emotional significance makes it more readily available in our thoughts. 
I believe it is time we acknowledge the fact that our thinking is not as objective or independent as we would like to believe, especially when fear or threat is involved. 

I do not mean this to judge Dr. Blimling or any others who have made this decision.  But I do think we as a field need to speak out against it... because it harms students.  One of our most cherished ethical tenants, "do no harm" was first proposed by Kitchener in 1985 and is now embedded in ACPA's Ethical Principles & Standards.  Allowing students to cheat through their courses directly and indirectly diminishes their learning, which we are responsible to facilitate.  We should know the degree to which our students are able to bypass the established standards of learning for our institution.
Students' diminished capacity likely impacts their achievement and opportunity later in life.   Employers say graduates lack job skills (including interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, etc.) at a time when 93% of employers say many of those and similar skills are more important than their major and over 1/3 of college students are failing to improve higher level thinking skills after 4 years.   The fact that nearly 1/2 of graduates are underemployed, working in jobs that do not require a college degree may be the end result of this.
The students are, of course, responsible as well, but our willful blindness is an enabling behavior, and admittedly, I take the high road in saying this is something we are responsible for. The cognitive development required for ethical reasoning is not fully developed in many of our students. And I suspect the aversion to assessing academic dishonesty contributes to this era of criticism and distrust higher education faces today.  But I wonder, could assessing it be one of the things that helps us out of it?


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